1999: The News Tribune, Tacoma, Wash.
5/25/1999
ASNE Staff
Award for Deadline News Reporting
Tuesday, May 25, 1999
by: ASNE Staff

Section: Deadline News Reporting


Sandi Doughton, Lisa Kremer, Bruce Rushton, Stacey Bums, Aimee Green and Skip Card



'WE WERE REALLY HANGING BY A THREAD'
'JUST A SNOWBALL' QUICKLY
TRIGGERED A WAVE OF CHAOS

June 13, 1998

Swept from her feet by a churning wave of snow, Ruth Mahre fought to stop her slide. She jabbed repeatedly at the snow with her ice ax, but the tool wouldn't bite into the deep, mushy mass.

As Thursday's avalanche propelled her toward a rocky cliff high on Mount Rainier, mages of death flooded her mind.

"When you're flying down rocks, and snow is pushing you down, and the people roped to you are pulling you down, you can't stop, you don't think you're going to live," recalled the 25-year-old climbing guide.

When she finally came to a stop, the situation was hardly less perilous.

Mahre and her rope team of four climbers were tangled with another five-person team, and several were dangling across the face of Disappointment Cleaver -- a jagged fin of rock and ice at 11,400 feet.

The nylon rope that tethered Mahre's team to a fixed line on the slope above was nearly severed by sharp, volcanic rocks. Only a few strands remained intact.

"We were really hanging by a thread," she said. "If anybody moved, we were going down the cliff."

It would be nearly 24 hours before Mahre and some of her fellow climbers were back on the pavement at Paradise Ranger Station at Mount Rainier National Park, after one of the mountain's most dramatic rescues.

One of their number -- 29-year-old Patrick Nestler of Connecticut -- perished from exposure. Eight were treated for injuries and released from area hospitals. But in the sunshine that bathed the mountain Friday, shadows from the tragedy didn't deter scores of other climbers determined to pit themselves against the mountain. "If you live by your fears, you stay at home," said Karen Peterson of Denver, who hoped to reach the top.

Several of those who nearly lost their personal battles with Rainier showed less bravado. "I don't think so," whispered a red-eyed Scott Pressman, one of the rescued climbers, when asked whether he would tackle the mountain again.

*

Until the avalanche struck, the day had been a glorious one.

Most of the nearly 30 people who had paid $745 each to participate in Rainier Mountaineering Inc.'s five-day mountain-climbing school had reached the 14,411-foot summit early in the morning. It was the fourth day of the class, and the students, from all across the country, had forged friendships from hours spent in camp and on the slopes.

Curt Hewitt, 47, was one of the lead guides. Hewitt left Minnesota 15 years ago to become a guide with RMI.

"This was one of the most spectacular days I've ever seen," he said. "It was like that right up to the accident. It was euphoria, and then chaos."

About 2 p.m., two teams of five had reached the 45-degree, downslope edge of the cleaver, one of the most treacherous points on the climb.

An 800-foot safety line stretched across the snow, anchored in place by 3-foot aluminum spikes driven into snow and rock. Climbing team members were roped to each other, and at least one member of each group also hooked onto the safety line for the brief dash across the sheer stretch.

Clipped to the fixed rope, Hewitt was leading the first team across the traverse. The second was waiting its turn.

Pressman, a 48-year-old ophthalmologist from Boise in the second team, watched a cantaloupe-sized snowball tumble down the slope above and mushroom with appalling speed and ferocity.

"It was just a snowball," he said. "By the time it got down to the safety line, it was a full-fledged avalanche."

Kent Swanson, a 53-year-old Maryland businessman, was in the first group, midway across the traverse.

"I heard someone yell, 'Slide!' and then 'Run!' " he said.

The first group ran -- but not fast enough.

"We had made it two-thirds of the way across, and then the wave hit us," said Hewitt. "I just kind of submarined under the snow."

The weight of five people and the force of the snow overwhelmed the fixed safety line. One of the aluminum anchors ripped out, then another. A single anchor held.

Hewitt gripped his ice ax with his right hand and in the left gripped two ropes -- the fixed line and the one that connected him to his team. He came to a stop almost completely buried, his arm wrenched behind his back -- the weight of four people hanging from the ropes wrapped around his left hand. He thought his fingers were being pulled off. As soon as they spotted the avalanche, the second group of climbers hit the ground and dug in their ice axes and crampons. They thought the snowfall might pass them by. But when the fixed safety line whipped loose, it pulled them down with the others. "All I know is, I opened my mouth and said, 'God save us,' and my mouth filled with snow and I was over the edge," said Allen Fedor, a 30-year-old vinyl decking salesman from Minnesota.

Fedor estimates he slid 350 feet down the mountain, then fell 40 feet through the air before landing on a ledge and beginning to slide further.

"The rope came taut 5 feet before the second edge," he said. "It would've been eternity after that."

When the toppling mass of snow, rock, ice and humanity came to a rest, Hewitt managed to pull his radio from his backpack and call for help.

"Mayday, mayday!" he shouted. "The Cleaver has slid!'

*

On the other side of the rock wedge, 400 feet above the avalanche, Wreatha Carrier was camped with her paralyzed husband, Peter Rieke, who is attempting to climb the mountain in a hand-cranked "snow pod."

She saw the snow slide and falling climbers, and used her cell phone to call in the first alert. And she listened to the victims' screams for nearly four hours, Carner said in a note carried down the mountain by another climber.

Her first instinct was to try to reach Nestler, who was suspended in space nearly 100 feet down the face of the cliff. But a crevasse blocked her path, and all she could do was watch.

*

Near the summit, climbing ranger Mike Gauthier was savoring his day off. He had climbed to the top with a snowboard on his back, and was preparing to shred the mountain.

His radio crackled and spat out the bad news: An avalanche had swept away several climbers. Their condition was unknown.

A man who numbers his summit conquests in the hundreds, Gauthier knew the area and knew it could be bad.

He on his board and sped down. It took him 20 minutes to reach the accident site, where at least five RMI guides already had started the rescue efforts. As he approached the area, Gauthier had to leave his board and pick his way on foot through a field of "hang-fire," the unstable debris from an avalanche. What he saw was frightening.

The fixed safety line was taut and straining, and one of the ropes that held the climbers appeared on the verge of snapping.

"It was just down to the inner strands," Gauthier said.

Hewitt's team was strung out above the lip of the cliff. Deborah Lynn from Manhattan Beach, Calif., was clinging to rocks 30 feet below the edge of the cliff. She also was being doused by a frigid river of snowmelt.

In the second group, Mahre's rope was wrapped around a large rock at the edge of the cliff, holding her snug against the boulder. The weight of other climbers tugged at her body.

"The rock felt solid," she said. "The people below me didn't feel so solid." At the other end of the rope, Pressman also clung to the edge of the cliff. In between, three climbers were strung like a necklace along the rock face.

Nestler was in the worst position: Hanging in the middle, with nothing to support him. The wet snow had soaked all of the climbers, and they shivered as they clung immobile to their perches.

"If anyone of these people moved, we were all gone," said climber Gregg Swanson, brother of Kent Swanson.

Heidi Eichner, who has been an RMI guide for five years, was the first to reach Mahre.

"When I got there, I could not believe it," Eichner said. "It was incredibly dangerous."

For the climbers, the rescuers' arrival helped allay the terror.

"They walked around like angel's wings," said Gregg Swanson.

*

For the rescuers, the scary work had just begun.

"It wasn't frantic. No one was screaming or yelling or going crazy," Gauthier said. "But we hustled."

The first priority was to replace the frayed rope and anchor the climbers snugly to the mountainside. To do that, they needed line and other equipment, which they scavenged from other climbing parties.

"We started stripping gear from whoever we could," Gauthier said.

It took about 90 minutes to completely replace and reposition the loose and frayed rope. Even before they finished, the rescuers also freed Hewitt's hand from the ropes that threatened to crush his bones.

Some of the rescuers rappelled down the cliff, to check on each of the climbers.

They couldn't reach Nestler, who was hanging out of sight.

"All you could see was a rope going over the edge," said Eichner.

But they heard him scream and groan.

Next, the rescuers -- who included Gauthier and several RMI guides -- fashioned pulley systems to hoist the climbers to safety. Rescuers then rappelled down to each victim, and hooked them up.

Lynn, the woman stuck in the freezing waterfall, was first. She was blue, incoherent and slipping in and out of consciousness when they reached her, three hours after the rescue began.

Nestler, however, was impossible to reach. Instead, rescuers decided to lower him to the base of the cliff.

Lou Whittaker, owner of RMI and a world-renowned mountain climber, took an Army helicopter to the site with other RMI guides. Arriving about three hours after the avalanche, they began climbing to the base of the cliff to get to Nestler. The terrain was hazardous, riddled with crevasses. They had to break a fresh trail. Nestler was dead by the time the rescuers lowered him to the ground. According to an autopsy, he died of hypothermia about two hours after the avalanche. Whittaker said the skillful rescue operation prevented other fatalities. "Without the incredible coordination, we would have had more deaths," he said.

The avalanche itself wasn't that big, Gauthier said. He estimated it was 40 yards wide and between 6 and 10 inches deep. It was, however, extremely dangerous because of the location -- above a sheer cliff.

More than 80 people worked on the rescue, from volunteer groups to climbing guides and military personnel.

Most of the victims remained calm, as did the rescuers, Gauthier said. Whittaker brought warm Gatorade for the chilled climbers and rescue team. And his mere presence was comforting, some of the climbers said.

The most severely injured of the victims were lowered down the mountain on litters, to Ingraham Flat, a broad, open area where climbers often spend the night before their final ascent.

Others walked.

The avalanche occurred shortly after 2 p.m., and the last of the victims was safe by 7:45 p.m.

The U.S. Army Chinook helicopter from Fort Lewis picked up the injured people and Nestler's body, and flew them to Madigan Army Medical Center.

"They treated us like we were little babies," Fedor said of the tender care administered by the chopper crew.

Everyone was quiet as the helicopter lifted off about 9:15 p.m.

"The sun was setting," Gauthier said. "It was just beautiful. The truth of it was, it was fabulously beautiful."

Several of the injured climbers choked up as they neared Madigan.

"The tears are coming from the guys and gals who were wondering if they'd make it,"

Whittaker said. "When you land, you feel good."

From Madigan, the climbers were taken by ambulance to several hospitals, where they were treated for injuries ranging from sore wrists to torn ligaments and neck strain.

Mahre and others who were unharmed spent the night on the mountain and hiked down Friday.

When she reached Paradise, Mahre -- sister of Phil and Steve Mahre, Olympic medallists in skiing -- kissed and hugged her colleagues, and her brown, mixed-breed dog, Fraulein. "I thought about you on the way down," she told the wriggling dog.

Other climbers returned to Ashford on Friday to wait for their belongings to be brought down the mountain.

Sharing experiences and reliving the details, four of the climbers fought tears and laughed over the good parts of their week together.

"The more I talk about it, the more I can't believe it," said Gregg Swanson.

All praised their guides and rescuers.

"These guys put their lives at risk," Pressman said.

At Paradise, Whittaker -- who, perhaps, knows Mount Rainier as well as anyone -- mused about the mountain and its power and appeal.

"Rainier has lot of secrets that we're always learning," he said. "We have to remember it's an indifferent mountain. We love it, but it doesn't necessarily love us."

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